The Corner

Re: That Review

Rick – Oshinsky’s complaint about my ignoring things like the Klan in the 1920s is odder still because it’s just not the case. This points to why I think the review is so non-responsive. Here are a few paragraphs from the book on how I deal with the Klan in the 1920s:

Perhaps an even better indication of how little modern popular

conceptions jibe with the historical reality during this period is the

Ku Klux Klan. For decades that Klan has stood as the most obvious

candidate for an American brand of fascism. That makes quite a bit

of sense. The right-wing label, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as

clean a fit. The Klan of the Progressive Era was not the same Klan

that arose after the Civil War. Rather, it was a collection of loosely

independent organizations spread across the United States. What

united them, besides their name and absurd getups, was that they

were all inspired by the film The Birth of a Nation. They were, in

fact, a “creepy fan subculture” of the film. Founded the week of the

film’s release in 1915, the second Klan was certainly racist, but not

much more than the society in general. Of course, this is less a defense

of the Klan than an indictment of the society that produced it.

For years the conventional view among scholars and laymen alike

was that the Klan was rural and fundamentalist. The truth is it was

often quite cosmopolitan and modern, thriving in cities like New

York and Chicago. In many communities the Klan focused on the reform

of local government and on maintaining social values. It was

often the principal extralegal enforcer of Prohibition, the consummate

Progressive “reform.” “These Klansmen,” writes Jesse Walker

in an illuminating survey of the latest scholarship, “were more likely

to flog you for bootlegging or breaking your marriage vows than for

being black or Jewish.”

When modern liberals try to explain away the Klan membership

of prominent Democrats—most frequently the West Virginia senator

Robert Byrd—they cough up a few clichés about how good liberals

“evolved” from their southern racial “conservatism.” But the Klan of

the 1920s was often seen as reformist and modern, and it had a close

relationship with some Progressive elements in the Democratic

Party. The young Harry Truman, as well as the future Supreme Court

justice Hugo Black, was a member. In 1924, at the famous “Klanbake”

Democratic convention, the KKK rallied around the future senator

William McAdoo,Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the treasury (and son-in-law), a key architect of Wilson’s war socialism, and a staunch Prohibitionist.

Bonus: Here’s a link to Jesse Walker’s brilliant piece on “Hooded Progressivism.”

Update: From a reader:

Hey Jonah–

I sort of get what you’re saying about the Klan.  But, the Klan is not “liberal” or “leftist” just because it was associated with the Democrat party of 100 years ago, right?  I haven’t read your book (yet!) but my understanding so far is that this Klan thing does not advance the argument.

Have a great new year and congrats on the book.

Me: I don’t say that the Klan is “liberal.” That’s not my point. My point is merely that the historical roots of the Klan are different than what most of us have been told and its relationship to modern American conservatism is much weaker than many liberals and leftists would have you believe. That’s all I’m saying, and I think that’s saying plenty.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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